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Party line

While Moscow has transformed itself into a virtual carnival of capitalism, the subway system is a Soviet theme park honoring Russia
Image: Moscow subway
Commuters talk beside a Soviet-era mosaic, depicting a hammer and sickle and the Soviet star at Novoslobodskaya subway station in MoscowPeter Dejong / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true"><p>The Washington Post</p></a

It's morning rush hour under Moscow, and several hundred commuters have just boarded two subway trains headed in opposite directions, leaving me with the platform all to myself. Hundreds more will be arriving any minute, but I've got plenty of company already.

The Ploshchad Revolutsii Metro station, three blocks from the Kremlin, is decorated with dozens of larger-than-life bronze statues—soldiers, farmers, students and factory workers—a whole cast of comrades straight out of some forgotten Five-Year Plan. Beside me is the likeness of a schoolgirl with a book in one hand and a rifle in the other; just ahead there's a Bolshevik border guard keeping his eyes peeled for any unusual activity. As more trains come and go from the station, I'm sure the guard, if he were real, would agree it's a pretty strange sight: throngs of modern-day Muscovites off to work, not in steel mills or potato collectives, but in banks, trade associations and consulting firms.

Kolya, a local political operative I've known for years, can't believe I want to spend an entire day exploring Moscow by subway. The crowded Metro may be a way of life for millions; however, Kolya, who moved up to expensive cars in the mid-1990s, isn't one of them.

“I hope you know where you're going,” he says.

I do, too. Not only do many of the old stops have new post-Soviet names, the whole subway system has been through an identity crisis. A decade after capitalism began, descending into Moscow's Metro is like entering a subterranean time warp, a shadowy network of stations and tunnels that crisscross the city like a communist catacombs. The party line may have flopped; just the same, the propaganda is all down here in what could be the most ambitious underground art project ever conceived.

Kolya calls to say he's meeting a client for lunch and won't be joining me. Like most young professionals in Russia's bustling capital, he's too busy taking care of business to be interested in Soviet times.

“Let's get together later for a banya,” says Kolya, referring to the Russian version of a sauna. “You'll need one.”

A shady history

On my first trip to Moscow, 15 years ago, a colleague told me there was only one way to learn the city. He warned it could be risky. I might be questioned by the KGB, have my pockets picked, and come away smelling like a combination of garlic, vodka and bad Russian perfume.

“Interested?” he asked.

Ten minutes later, I embarked on my first Metro ride, and I've been hooked ever since. The Moscow subway puts ours to shame. For one thing, trains run every two minutes or less, as opposed to every five to 10 minutes in Washington; for another, the flat fare of 7 rubles (about 25 cents) is such a bargain it's almost free by D.C. standards.

These days rubles are the required, if not always welcome, form of payment in Russia's market economy. After double-checking my supply, I grab a Red Line train for Novodevichy Convent, whose adjoining cemetery is the final resting place for scores of Kremlin VIPs, many of the same ones who promised, somewhat prematurely, to bury us. With reminders of Soviet Moscow getting harder to find, a visit to Novodevichy seems like a good way to start the day.

Sportivnaya, the stop nearest the cemetery, is also home to the Metro Museum. At the top of a dark staircase behind the station's empty jail cell—every subway stop has one—the dingy museum traces the Metro's history from a hole in the ground to one of the largest mass-transit operations in the world. It doesn't take long to detect some glaring Soviet-type omissions. Josef Stalin, driving force behind the original dig, is never mentioned; neither are the prison inmates ordered to do most of the early construction. Even so, the latest statistics are impressive. Opened to the public in 1935, the system's 11 lines now cover 165 miles and carry more than 5 million passengers every day. That's half the population of the city.

But I'm curious about one of Moscow's weirder urban legends—the mystery Metro—a sort of “underground” underground that supposedly transported Stalin's henchmen around town and kept the party elite in a constant state of panic. An apartment building near the Kremlin that once housed members of the dictator's inner circle is rumored to have had a special stop in the basement. There would be a knock on the door and some unlucky commissar whose time was up got a free ride to KGB headquarters. If there ever was a secret subway, the museum completely avoids the subject, which many Russians would interpret as confirmation that it's still in use.

Communing with the dead

Hidden behing high crenelated brick walls and sheltered by a small birch forest, the cemetery at Novodevichy looks like a medieval fortress. It's nice to see that management hasn't adopted the two-tier admission policy popular at most Moscow attractions, where foreigners—“because they can afford it”—have to pay more to get in than Russians. Tickets cost 30 rubles; maps go for five.

“In Russian or English?” asks the cashier.

“English,” I say, and immediately I'm joined by a smartly dressed woman, introducing herself as Ludmilla Ivanovna, who offers to be my guide. She and a group of other women, Soviet-trained as translators in various languages, show up regularly at Novodevichy looking for work. Business, Ludmilla says, has been slow.

The Communist Party, officially atheist in its approach to the hereafter, must have assumed its dearly departed would be running the country forever. Several tombs show sculpted Soviet officials, a couple of them sitting dutifully at their desks; one depicts an especially fearsome-looking apparatchik talking on the phone. A short distance away, mutually assured destruction is the motif in the military section, where memorials dedicated to deceased generals and admirals are accessorized with mini-long-range bombers, atomic submarines and other components of the nuclear arms race. I get the distinct feeling that any of these guys would have been happy to drop the Big One.

“Bad people,” sneers Ludmilla.

Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet foreign minister nicknamed “Comrade Nyet” for his obstinate negotiating style, was important enough to be in Novodevichy. Nikita Khrushchev was, too. Khrushchev built the Berlin Wall, then lost his job following the Cuban missile crisis. The former leader's tomb, topped by an oversize rendition of his bald head in what appears to be a vise, was designed by artist Ernst Neizvestny, whose work Khrushchev publicly denounced for its anti-Soviet tendencies.

It's odd that communists would choose the grounds of a church convent for their version of Forest Lawn. Were they simply stealing it, as Ludmilla suspects, or hedging their bets? In either case, nowhere in Russia is there a larger gathering of late hard-liners, or more convincing proof of Karl Marx's theory that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce.

Raisa Gorbachev's grave, with its statue of a wistful young maiden gazing into a slate pond, is like a scene from a fairy tale. I didn't know commies were so romantic. Ludmilla says Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the demise of the Soviet Union, loved his wife very much. Then she mutters that he must have stolen the money to pay for such a lavish monument. Ludmilla, like many Russians of a certain age, complains about being caught between two worlds, one in which the government used to provide everything and one in which the government provides next to nothing. She places responsibility for the resulting hardship on Gorbachev and his successor, Boris Yeltsin, who, as Ludmilla sees it, gave away the country to criminals and foreign investors, terms Russians often use interchangeably.

On our way back to the entrance, we come to a part of the cemetery where birch bark covers the ground like sheets of parchment. This area is reserved for writers and composers, among them Anton Chekhov, Sergei Prokofiev and Nikolai Gogol, author of the comic masterpiece Dead Souls. Gogol's slyly smiling bust atop a 10-foot marble pedestal suggests that at least one of Novodevichy's residents has kept his sense of humor about the place.

It's nearly noon, time to head for the Metro. I say goodbye to Ludmilla, who looks disappointed with the $10 I give her. Is something wrong? She just shrugs and sighs. She was hoping for euros.

A subway ride back in time

When the Soviet Union folded in 1991, subway stations honoring newly out-of-favor party heroes got quickie name changes. What couldn't be changed was their high-concept interior design. Riding the Metro today, it's not hard to imagine that Moscow is the same sinister place it was before the collapse of communism. If the new economy has transformed life above ground, Moscow's subway will be the Land o' Lenin for a very long time. In fact, Lenin's familiar face is everywhere—on the walls, on the ceilings and around corners. The effect is quaintly creepy, as if the Supreme Soviet were still on the lookout for enemies of the people.

Halfway downtown I decide to transfer to the Circle Line for a ride through some of the oldest stations, every one a clean and efficient example of life in a workers' paradise; in other words, the exact opposite of real life in the Soviet Union. The “evil empire” atmospherics and the architectural styles, from Red Army art deco to hammer-and-sickle modern, change with every stop. There's Taganskaya, which glorifies veterans of the Great Patriot War, as Russians call World War II; Prospekt Mira, famous for its brightly colored stained glass and Stalin-era chandeliers; and Kievskaya, where elaborately framed mosaics depict the many achievements of Soviet labor, all of which seem to involve dam projects and tractor plants. An artist expanding on a similar idea today might be tempted to add a few post-Soviet achievements like deluxe dachas and bulletproof BWMs.

Moscow's sudden wealth and the crime that goes with it may not extend to all parts of Russia, but in the city's subway, signs of prosperity are easy to spot. The dressed-for-success passengers riding with me look nothing like their demoralized counterparts of a decade ago. A stylish woman across the aisle is reading the Russian version of Cosmo. The man next to her, decked out in a sharp business suit, is paging through a financial magazine. That would have been a criminal offense under the Soviet regime.

When the train pulls into Komsomolskaya, I exit to admire the incredible decor. Named after the Communist Youth League, the station commemorates great moments in Russian military history. Lenin's tactical genius is celebrated in a huge red-and-gold mosaic that covers a large part of the ceiling. The gigantic tableau replaced a similar celebration of Stalin's tactical genius, removed for political reasons in the early 1960s. Whenever communist authorities rewrote history, work crews would get busy eliminating all related public references, a luxury the new government can't afford. As a result, the Lenin mosaic remains an extraordinary sight, even if the subject has lost its appeal for many Russians. Maybe that explains why I'm the only one on the platform looking up.

That could also explain why there are no organized groups, outside of an aging population of elderly true believers, intent on preserving Moscow's Soviet past. The Russians I know would rather forget that part of their history, but the Metro won't let them. By making sure nearly every subway stop was built deep enough to double as an air-raid shelter, Stalin all but guaranteed that the system would never be affected by political changes. Politburo meetings were conducted in the Mayakovskaya station when Moscow was surrounded by the Germans in 1941. The nearby Chistiyie Prudy stop (formerly Kirowvskaya) served as one of Stalin's wartime bunkers. When I ask an attendant if the generalissimo ever used Komsomolskaya, she gets mad and tells me to mind my own business.

Here's one old tradition that hasn't changed. In Soviet days, when the customer was always wrong, being yelled at by the women who run Metro stations was standard procedure. The slightest infraction of the rules could unleash a tirade of abuse. Under the communists every functionary was an instrument of state supervision, and nobody took the work more seriously than the “subway ladies.” In an effort to change that image, Metro officials recently launched an ad campaign, complete with posters featuring knockout fashion models in tight-fitting blue subway uniforms and slogans like “Have a Nice Ride!” Apparently the message hasn't filtered down to all levels of the operation.

Chowing down in "Chinatown"

Moscow's Chinatown doesn't have any Chinese restaurants as far as I can tell, but there is a McDonald's, one of many all over the city. The original Russian McDonald's, which opened on Pushkin Square in 1990, was the first Western-style restaurant in the Soviet Union. People lined up for blocks to get in. Maybe the Cold War would have ended on its own; nevertheless, McDonald's, not to mention Pepsi and Pizza Hut, deserves at least some credit for speeding up the process.

I'm considering a “Bolshoi Mak” until I catch sight of a Russian Bistro down the street from the Kitai Gorod Metro stop. Instead of burgers and fries, the Bistro chain offers Russian and Eurasian dishes and half a dozen brands of frozen vodkas. I order a plate of Georgian khachapuri (a little like a steaming cheese quesadilla) and a small, frosty bottle of vodka. The khachapuri hits the spot, and the ice-cold vodka pours like 30-weight motor oil.

Two men at the next table are speaking English, which seems reason enough to ask what they're having.

“I don't know what this is,” says one, an American, Bob from Montana.

“It's supposed to be beef stroganoff,” grumbles the other, Boris, a Russian wearing a bear skin hat. This is Bob's first trip to Russia. He and Boris are involved in some sort of cultural exchange program, and both appear to be having second thoughts about the cuisine.

“Maybe some vodka would help,” I tell Bob, who thinks he'd better not. His stomach's been acting up. “We're flying to Omsk tomorrow,” he explains, at which point Boris shoots him a look that says, Don't talk to strangers.

Some Russians can be very possessive when it comes to foreigners under their supervision, and Boris already has Bob putting on his coat.

“We have to go,” says Boris, as the two start for the door.

Bob, I notice, has forgotten his briefcase, but when I reach under the table to get it for him, Boris is back in a flash.

“That's ours!” he barks, yanking it out of my hands.

A waitress, who probably thinks I'm a thief, flicks her middle finger against her neck, a gesture Russians use to indicate someone who's had too much to drink. Since I'm the only customer left, I assume she means me.

I wanted to revisit Soviet Moscow, and something tells me I just arrived. After being told off in the Metro station and now getting insulted at lunch, I've finally found the Moscow I was looking for, or has it found me?

A tour of Red Square

The last time I was here, Lenin's tomb, in Red Square, was closed for repairs, and it is again, which accounts for the group of disappointed tourists milling around in front of the red and black marble mausoleum.

“We were looking forward to seeing him,” says a woman from England. I was, too, and start telling her about the only time I ever made it inside—the funeral parlor quiet, the eerie red light and the body, hands folded in front and tilted forward for better viewing.

“Do you think it's really...him?” someone asks.

It looked like him to me, not counting the bogus-looking moustache and goatee. There's occasional talk about burying Lenin, who died in 1924. Stalin, his mausoleum roommate for a time, was removed and buried in the Kremlin wall more than 40 years ago. When Yeltsin proposed doing the same with Lenin, communist protesters gathered around the tomb—identified in Kremlin Cold War speak as "Strategic Location No. 1"—to keep watch until the threat subsided.

Despite the beefed-up police presence in response to recent terrorist bombings (earlier this year one in the subway killed 41 people), Red Square bears little resemblance to the place where Politburo potentates once congregated for holiday parades. Where communist banners used to hang there are casinos, expensive restaurants and an upscale shopping mall.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has turned the whole area into an urban-renewal project. The English-language Moscow Times recently criticized Luzhkov for tearing down scores of historic buildings, many of them around Red Square, such as the Moscow Hotel, which is in the final stages of demolition when I arrive. The hotel's asymmetric appearance—observant vodka drinkers may know it from the Stolichnaya label—was said to be the result of Stalin's approval of two separate designs, a mistake his subordinates must have been afraid to point out. Plans call for rebuilding a replica of the old hotel that will also have offices and, of course, a casino.

The wrecking ball, fortunately, has spared some old buildings. Across the street Russia's parliament, known as the Duma, is standing tall. Soviet architects specialized in imposing featureless structures with hard-to-find entry points. People-friendly public access is new to Russia, where for centuries a closed society looked like a closed society, right down to the tiny windows and doors. Still emblazoned with a huge Soviet coat of arms above the entrance, the Duma occupies the onetime headquarters of Gosplan, the Communist Party's economic nerve center and a big reason the previous government went bankrupt. "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us," went an old Soviet joke. The Russians I know are all zealous proponents of the profit motive.

How zealous I learned several years ago when I ran into one of the country's most notorious politicians, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, in the lobby of the Duma. A member of Zhirinovsky's party had just been murdered—such assassinations are common in Russia—and I wanted to get his views on the killing for a book I was writing. He'd be happy to talk, the lawmaker said, but an interview was going to cost me $1,000 a minute. When it become obvious I wouldn't be paying, Zhirinovsky abruptly summoned his goon squad and left the building.

Steaming away the day

Russians swear by the restorative powers of the Banya, a ritual that combines a sauna, an ice-cold bath and a thrashing with leafy tree branches. And as my friend Kolya accurately predicted, by the end of my day of Metro travels, I am a prime candidate. We had agreed to meet at Sanduny, a bathhouse that's outlasted wars, revolutions and economic upheavals for almost 200 years.

By the time I reach the Kuznetsky Most Metro station, just around the corner, I'm ready for the full treatment. Sanduny is a relic from the age of the czars. Sky-blue ceilings supported by gold columns embossed with angels give the lobby the look of a Faberge egg. Kolya has already gotten some fresh oak branches, called venik. While he makes arrangements for our togas and a pot of hot tea, I pick up a copy of the house rules, one of which advises: “Don't conflict with bath clients and provoke quarrels.”

A banya, the brochure goes on, “gives you ten advantages: clear mind, freshness, energy, health, strength, beauty, cleanliness, a nice color for your complexion, the feeling of a young man and the attention of beautiful women.”

In the carved wooden lounge outside “the sweat room,” a group of men wrapped in white sheets is relaxing over beers and smoked fish. Sanduny, like all Russian banyas, is as much about pampering—most banyas have women's sections, too—as it is a good scrub-down. That's why Kolya wants me to keep his last name a secret. His clients might think he's living too well.

Suitably pre-washed, the two of us don our cone-shaped sauna hats (to keep the blood from rushing to our brains, I'm told) and enter the sweat room. The camphor-scented heat, the sounds of wet oak branches smacking against human flesh, the moaning, the groaning make me think that if there really is a place where Russian souls are trained to endure the daily grind, this has to be it. Several round trips between the sauna and the ice-water bath, followed by a head-to-toe beating with venik, convince me of it.

Afterward, in the lounge over tea, Kolya examines the blotches on my back caused by the beating he's just administered, and gives me the thumbs-up sign. My health, he proclaims, has been fully restored.

The surprising thing is that I feel fantastic. Three Americans, banya rookies like me, feel the same way. Kolya says he's been noticing more foreigners at Sanduny. It's a sign, he suspects, that some old Russian traditions, like the health-giving, sanity-sustaining benefits of a classic banya, have market value in new Russia.

“What an experience!” declares one the Americans, a businessman from New York on his first visit to Moscow. “I'm going home, packing my bags and getting back over here. This place is amazing!”

And what would I recommend as something “really Russian” to do after their banya, ask the new arrivals.

For a real adventure, I tell them, they should take a ride on the Metro. There's a station right up the street.

Bill Thomas is a co-author of Red Tape: Adventure Capitalism in the New Russia and edits This Is Rumor Control, an intelligence Web site.